(This was originally posted in The Print by Snehesh Alex Philip)
New Delhi: Weeks after the India-China stand-off began in Ladakh last year, soldiers on the two sides faced off in the Galwan Valley as a disengagement attempt was derailed by the refusal of the Chinese to keep up their end of the deal. Twenty Indian soldiers, including Commanding Officer Col. B. Santosh Babu, were killed in action.
This was the first time since 1975 that Indian soldiers had died in a clash on the India-China border, and the episode marked a shift in the nature of the stand-off. That is when the Indian Air Force (IAF), which has a considerable advantage along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), was brought in for active combat deployment in the area.
In the weeks before, the IAF had been helping deploy Army personnel and equipment, including tanks and armored personnel carriers, besides bringing in winter stocks for the additional soldiers posted in Ladakh. A year on, the IAF remains operationally deployed against China, with fighter aircraft continuing with forward deployment along with new radars and surface-to-air missile sites close to the LAC.
“The IAF, which was deployed fully after the Galwan clash, continues to remain operationally deployed,” a senior government source told ThePrint. As its role in Ladakh underwent a shift last year, the IAF put in place a full offensive and defensive deployment to counter China’s strategy of “Anti Access Area Denial (A2AD)”, sources in the defence establishment said.
This strategy involves restricting the enemy’s freedom of movement in the battlefield, and saw China deploy a wide range of surface-to-air missile (SAM) sites and long-range radars, apart from a large number of soldiers, artillery, rocket forces and armored elements, the sources said.
The IAF, in turn, deployed assets of multiple commands against China. Unlike the Army and the Navy, the deployment of assets in the IAF is centrally controlled. In times of need, the IAF headquarters decides where the assets are to be deployed. The assets deployed ranged from transport aircraft like AN32, C-130J and C-17, to helicopters, including Apaches and Chinooks, besides fighters, including Rafale. The deployment also included surface-to-air missiles, radars and increased surveillance duty, the sources said.
For ground staff and specialists in the IAF, this marked the first time they were deployed in extreme high-altitude areas along the LAC, close to the site of friction, the sources said. “The 15 June Galwan clash changed everything. The casualties meant that there was every possibility of things going in a very different direction than what was anticipated initially,” said a source in the defence establishment.
Chinese operations in Ladakh
While China has an edge over India in its air defence systems, the Indians have an advantage over the former in the high-altitude Ladakh sector from a pure air-to-air combat perspective. One of the biggest disadvantages for China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is that all their bases in the Tibet region are far away from the LAC and are at high altitudes, unlike India’s. And because of high altitudes, the fighters cannot take off with full fuel or weapons packages. This means that the high altitude effectively saps the energy of the fighters.
China brought five of its ‘fifth-generation Chengdu J-20, also called the Mighty Dragon, in July, days before India got its first set of Rafale fighters earlier that month. These fighters remained deployed till March this year. Sources said it was flexing of muscles by China ahead of the induction of the Rafale aircraft.
“Chinese had set up new SAM sites, which basically included HQ 9, 22, and 16 (types of SAM). The Chinese had also deployed Russian systems,” a source said. “The Chinese broader thought process for defense is A2AD, which stands for Anti Access Area Denial. They do the same in the South China Sea also. They first deny access and then deny the area,” the source added.
Anti-access is limiting enemy military movement into an area of operations and involves the use of fighters, warships, and specialised ballistic and cruise missiles designed to strike key targets. Area denial is denying enemy freedom of action in areas under friendly control and employs more defensive means such as air and sea defense systems. “Their entire deployment is based on this concept and they sought to do the same in Ladakh. Hence, there was a need for a combined response to Chinese aggression and that is exactly what was done,” the source said.